California Leadership: Fighting or Fostering the Fentanyl Epidemic?


Fentanyl is a growing crisis across California. Local elected officials and police departments are going to war against this epidemic to try and save lives, but is the state assisting in this effort or are permissive policies possibly fostering the use of fentanyl?

Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. Illicit fentanyl can be added to other drugs to make them cheaper, more powerful, and more addictive and when mixed, increases the likelihood of a fatal interaction.

Provisional data from CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics indicate that there were an estimated 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the United States during 12-month period ending in April 2021, an increase of 28.5% from the 78,056 deaths during the same period the year before. Fentanyl is one of the most common drugs involved in overdose deaths.

There were over 42,700 fentanyl overdose deaths in 2020, with many who died unaware they ingested fentanyl. The drug is becoming increasingly popular, as evidenced by rising overdose rates that have increased 1,105% from 2012 to 2018.

Most proposals moving through the Legislature continue this permissive approach.  For example, Senate Bill 57 (Wiener) would allow for overdose prevention programs in communities that provide a hygienic space for people to use drugs.

“We can’t keep saying no to safe consumption sites and hope that somehow our challenges around addiction, overdoses, and mental health will just go away,” said Senator Wiener after his bill passed the Assembly Health Committee.

While the merits to provide a safe place for inevitable drug users to partake are debatable, the legislature’s leadership continues to dismiss the problem of possession.

It is not difficult to obtain and use drugs today under current law. Not only do California’s soft-on-crime policies decrease penalties on those who sell or possess drugs, but they are making it increasingly easier to find the means to purchase and obtain drugs through theft.

Under Proposition 47, any person desperate for the means to obtain fentanyl can simply waltz into their local grocery store and steal up to $950 worth of goods with no repercussions, then use the money from selling their stolen goods to obtain more drugs. Just this month, California legislators rejected a proposal to repeal Proposition 47, keeping decreased penalties for theft in place.

A larger problem is that current penalties for someone found to be in possession for heroin or meth are higher than fentanyl, despite fentanyl proving to be more dangerous in recent years.

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes voiced his support for Assembly Bill 1351 (Petrie-Norris & Bates) that did not move forward last year that would have changed this law to increase penalties for fentanyl to the same schedule as drugs like heroin and meth.

“[Fentanyl] is less costly to purchase for the cartels, and it’s easier to traffic because one kilo of fentanyl is equivalent to 50 kilos of heroin … I can’t stress enough how much we’ve been fighting to change this law. The law as it exists today has enhanced penalties for trafficking sales of narcotics for methamphetamine, for heroin, for cocaine, but it explicitly does not include fentanyl.”

Fentanyl use and deaths will not be curbed unless we are willing to hold those selling and possessing it accountable.

Emily Humpal is deputy communications director at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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